By: Rachel Wilson-Lowe
As I am sure everyone is aware, we are in the middle of a global pandemic. And as such, our PhDs and research projects are having to adapt. From some this may mean pausing your research or shifting to secondary data analysis. But for others, like myself, modifying your study methodology is the best course of action.
There has been so much recent academic interest in virtual methods and computer-mediated communication in the last 5 months, that it can be hard to sift through it all (not to mention having a solid enough understanding of online privacy and related GDPR concerns to update your study’s ethics).
SO to limit the scope of this blog post, I am going to focus on some practical things to consider when conducting virtual research (in my case interviews) from your home.
Have a ‘research space’
Having your own working space in which to conduct online interviews is important for a couple reasons. The first being the mental benefit of having a space distinct from the rest of your home, which is discussed further below in points 2 and 3.
The second reason for your home word space relates to conducing interviews and other data collection with video, your participants can see you and into your personal space (so no dirty pants laying about!). Set up your computer where you will be conducting your research and open the front-facing camera. Have a look at what is shown on your screen and think about how you want to present yourself to participants. Do you want to highlight your professional association and up your ‘research cred’? Or do you want your space to be accessible and relatable to the study participants.
For me, personally, I didn’t want my space to constantly remind participants about my connection with academia. I just wanted to have a room that I thought reflected my personality and was not too overwhelming to look at visually.
Depending on your research topic, and the level of self-disclosure you wish to engage in as a researcher, you might also want to think about family photos in the background or personal interests paraphernalia you deem more private. Your participants will base their impression of you, consciously or unconsciously, on what is presented to them on-screen.
There are no hard and fast rules obviously, but it is important to reflect on how your workspace may space your data collection and fieldwork.
Have a ‘wind-down’ task
Conducting research at home is quite different from having to travel about to fieldwork sites in a number of ways. But one aspect I hadn’t considered at all, before starting my interviews, was that I would miss the travel time after my data collection. For me, that time in between my participants’ homes and my own, represented a mental break and shift in attitude in which to mentally leave my workspace. Now, all I have to do after an interview is open a door and I am back in my home, but still at work in my head.
So what I have started doing is having a specific task to transition from one headspace to another, after conducting fieldwork. For me it is going on a walk/run/ride with the dog. But it could be anything! It may be that washing the dishes, or gardening, or folding laundry can be that time and space for you to put away the work in your head and step into your ‘home’ untethered.
Write in your reflective journal
Although writing a reflective journal is an important consideration for the vast majority of fieldwork (particularly for qualitative studies), this step can be even more vital for virtual fieldwork. The temptation to finish an interview and be done for the day can be strong. If you want, you could immediately just pop some Netflix on and veg out. But it is so beneficial to reflect on your data collection process straight away, before you forget the details.
So collecting data from home can tricky! You have to balance your headspace: not leaving the ‘work’ too soon after conducting virtual fieldwork but also not bringing the work out into your home. It takes some practice and effort, but don’t worry, you’ll get there!
Talk through your experience with colleagues or supervisors
When conducting ‘normal’ face-to-face fieldwork (meaning pre-COVID), it is not only your participants that you are seeing, but you are also interacting with colleagues more regularly. Thus, giving you the chance to talk through your research experiences in informal workplace chats. In lieu of the tea break conversations with other researchers, it is important to take the time to talk through your field work. There is something so unique about the revelations you can have when discussing your research out loud to someone. So I recommend having scheduled chats with either your work friends or supervisors to talk through the actual fieldwork experience. You might be surprised by the insights you gain during this interaction that otherwise may have gone unnoticed.
This communication is especially important if you had a particularly difficult interview. Maybe the participant didn’t open up in a way that you had hoped or the research subject matter caused them some distress. But either way, it helps your researcher reflexivity and your mental wellbeing to have someone to talk with after conducting fieldwork!
In some ways, conducting virtual fieldwork from home is quite similar to traditional, face-to-face research. You may have similar topics guides, consent forms and participant information sheets to go over, and with Zoom or Skype interviews you can see and hear your participants in real-time. But virtual fieldwork can be quite isolating, especially during the COVID pandemic, and difficult to manage your work/life balance. But hopefully this advice has given you some issues to consider with your research, so you can relax a bit and enjoy the research process, however it may be!
Rachel Wilson-Lowe is a Sociology PhD student at University of Glasgow. Her research explores women’s experiences of abortion, specifically why/how women are using online spaces to access services and share their stories. She is an advocate for sexual/reproductive healthcare and rights worldwide. You can find her on Twitter @Rwilsonlowe